Epistula Polycarpi: Introduction

HULCE version of Epistula Polycarpi Edition

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This Greek-Latin edition of the epistle of Polycarp provides a critical edition of the text with links to manuscripts, previous editions, critical apparatus, translation and commentary. The critical edition is the heart of the site, but you can also study all these elements separately and print out the documents you want. The whole point is 1) to make everything you need available in the same space and 2) to provide an interactive and intensive environment for studying this interesting early Christian document. It is like a buffet: you can choose what you take on your plate. You can study the manuscripts and their history, have a very critical look at the edition (yes, editors make mistakes!), learn to know the alternative editions and study the reception of the letter of Polycarp over centuries. The whole history of the text and its reception is fascinating. Last but not least, you don't have to master Greek or Latin to profit from this site, because it is also a pictorial journey into the history of manuscripts and books.

The libraries, which have generously digitized their manuscript collections, naturally possess all the rights to the digitized manuscripts linked or otherwise used in this edition. It is acknowledged in deep gratitude that editions like this completely depend on their valuable work. 

This edition was created in 2022-23 as a pilot project for Helsinki University Library Critical Editions (HULCE). I have revised it by adding some new digitized manuscripts. As for the introduction and commentary, I have changed my mind on the unity of the letter. I hope that the reader will find tools and ideas for his or her own adventure with this interesting second century Christian letter.

Bibliographical data: Epistula Polycarpi. Ed. by Matti Myllykoski. Helsinki University Library Critical Editions (HULCE) 1. https://libraryguides.helsinki.fi/hulce. Revised edition. Helsinki 2024.

Polycarp's Life and Work

Polycarp was the bishop of the prosperous harbor city Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), a Christian martyr and saint. The congregation of Smyrna was most likely founded during or in the aftermath of Paul’s mission in Asia Minor. We know that the local Christians were poor and in a socially difficult position because the author of Revelation praises the strong faith of the church of Smyrna and points at their relation to the local synagogue (Rev 2:9): ”I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan.” The visionary author of Revelation further warns the believers in Smyrna about the suffering and persecution they shall have to endure in the near future (v. 10-11). This is a glimpse of the situation among the Christian community under the rule of Domitian (81–96) towards the end of the first century. 

Polycarp lived a long and obviously productive life. Scholars commonly assume that one scene in his martyrdom story includes vital information. According to Mart. Pol. 9.3, Polycarp says on trial in response to the demand to give up his faith in Christ: ”For eighty-six years I have been his servant and he has done me no wrong.”  Therefore, it has been concluded that Polycarp became a Christian very early. It is disputed whether 86 years point at his birth or his baptism. Many scholars assume that Polycarp was born at the time of the Jewish War (ca. 70 C. E.) and that he died as a martyr in his hometown 156. Othes date his birth and death ten years later (ca. 80-166/7).

Be as it may, Irenaeus is - if we exclude here the disputed seven letters of Ignatius - our first indepenedent source on Polycarp. In his work against the heresies from 178, he tells in one concise passage about the bishop of Smyrna and praises his letter (Adv. haer. 3.3.4). We have some legendary information about Polycarp provided by other sources as well. Irenaeus, Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 4.14) and the so-called Harris fragments tell us that the young Polycarp knew John – which means either the Apostle or the Elder. Irenaeus says that John the ”Disciple of the Lord” lived in Ephesus until the time of Trajan (Adv. haer. 3.3.4), while John the Elder is mentioned by Papias (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.39.4). Since it is very unlikely that John the Apostle was active in Asia Minor, the case for John the Elder is much stronger here. Be as it may, this tradition indicates that the young Polycarp was an active Christian, and that the community of Smyrna was well-connected to other Christian communities. 

In his letter to the Christians of Philippi, Polycarp does not characterize himself as the bishop of Smyrna and he does not stress the authority of the community leaders in his letter. This is related to the delicate main topic of his letter, the painful case of Valens (see below). Scholars have assumed that Polycarp originally was one of the elders of his community, and only later became its bishop.  Irenaeus tells that he had, in his childhood or youth, heard Polycarp teach (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 5.20), and he further says that Polycarp knew Papias (Adv. haer. 5.23.4). Irenaeus also praises the letter of Polycarp (Adv. haer. 3.3.4), "from which those who choose to do so, and are anxious about their salvation, can learn the character of his faith, and the preaching of the truth". 

According to the so-called middle recension of the Ignatian letters, Ignatius visited Smyrna (MIgn. Magn. 15) and wrote at least one letter to Polycarp himself (MIgn. Pol.), while he was on the way to his martyrdom in Rome. The high esteem of Polycarp is an established fact also if the seven Ignatian letters are considered spurious. In that case, it is more convenient to assume that they were composed rather after the martyrdom of Polycarp than before it. 

Irrespective of the question of authenticity of the Ignatian middle recension, the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp bear witness to the same basic Christian convictions. They both were staunch opponents of Christian teachers who did not believe in the incarnation and physical suffering of Jesus Christ. The trouble caused by these teachers seems to have been more than a local issue since Ignatius writes about it to Smyrneans (MIgn. Smyrn. 5.2; 7.1) and Polycarp to the Philippians (Pol. Phil. 7.1). Ignatius strongly emphasizes the authority of the bishop (MIgn. Smyrn. 8.1), while Polycarp neither mentions that he himself is a bishop nor does he know that the Philippians have a bishop; he admonishes only elders and deacons (Pol. Phil. 5-6).

Irenaeus (Adv. har. 3.3.4; Eusbius, Hist. eccl. 5.24) tells that in his old age, Polycarp visited bishop Anicetus in Rome to settle the Quartodeciman quarrel between Eastern and Western churches. Polycarp and other Quartodecimans supported the practice of celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan on whatever day of the week, while Western Christians preferred to celebrate it on the following Sunday. The visit ended in a peaceful disagreement. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.3.4) also tells that while in Rome Polycarp converted many Valentinians and Marcionites back to the “apostolic truth”. After his visit to Rome, Polycarp returned home, where he died as a martyr. Martyrdom of Polycarp, which has been included in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, is a disputed account of his death. Some scholars date it close to the events, while others regard it as a much later work.

The Epistle of Polycarp: The questions of unity and date

Relying on the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, most scholars assume that their ways crossed at the time Ignatius was in chains and on his way to suffering and martyrdom in Rome (Pol. Phil. 1.1; 9.1). If we follow the information provided by Eusebius, this should have happened sometime between 115 and 120, and thus the majority of scholars also dates the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp back to this time. This traditional view has been challenged by scholars who argue that the seven Ignatian letters are forgeries composed in the 160's or even later. 

Many scholars still regard Pol. Phil. as a unity, but since the 17th century there have been those who find that the information provided by passages 1.1; 9.1-2 and 13.1-2 is in contradiction with each other and other parts of the letter. Verse 1.1 refers to unnamed martyrs, which the Philippians have recently received and sent forward.  This verse leans on verses 9.1-2, which mention their names: Ignatius, Zosimus and Rufus. The connection between these passages is problematic, because 9.1 indicates that these men and some unnamed others are local, Philippian martyrs (ἐν τοῖς μακαρίοις Ἰγνατίῳ καὶ Ζωσίμῳ καὶ Ῥούφῳ, ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις τοῖς ἐξ ὑμῶν). Correspondingly, Ignatius does not mention Zosimus and Rufus as his fellow-prisoners.

Therefore it seems likely that Polycarp begun his letter simply with a captatio benevolentiae by referring to the strong faith of the Philippian Christians: Συνεχάρην ὑμῖν μεγάλως ἐν κυρίῳ ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ, ὅτι ἡ βεβαία τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν ῥίζα κτλ. Thus he prepared them for his response to their letter (3.1), which was focused on the case of Valens, a presbyter who had misused his position (see below). The name of Ignatius, in turn, may have been added into the list of Philippian martyrs in 9.1 to create a connexion between these passages. 

There is also another, simultanaous or later interpolation into the text. According to the statement in 9.1-2, Ignatius and other martyrs are already dead, while in 13.1-2 they are referred to as still being alive and well among the Philippians. Therefore, Percy Neale Harrison (1936) and many scholars after him have assumed that ch. 13 originally stems from a separate, earlier letter.

However, this popular theory is problematic. It indicates that Ignatius sent from Philippi to Smyrna a letter, which we are otherwise completely unaware of. Furthermore, it points at a letter Polycarp has received from the Philippians and indicates the wish that he would send it further to Syria – or that he would himself make such a journey. The latter idea underlines the intensive contacts between Christian communities but is far from being a realistic scenario. Furthermore, in the present context, this letter cannot be anything else than their angry letter asking for Polycarp’s help to solve the case of Valens (3.1; 11.1). This is, in turn, was hardly a letter worth sending to the believers in Syria. Furthermore, the letter of Polycarp does not indicate that the Philippians had consulted Ignatius about the difficult case of Valens; instead, they sent a letter to the bishop of far-away Smyrna.

All this is easier to understand, if ch. 13 is regarded as a later addition to the original letter, just as J. Daillé (Dallaeus) already in 1666 proposed.  Its clear purpose was to supplement the information provided by the seven Ignatian letters with a contextual reference about spreading the letters of the famous martyr and other documents to the Christians of Syria and Philippi. 

If all references to Ignatius (1.1; the words Ἰγνάτιος καί in 9.1, and 13.1-2) in the letter of Polycarp are later interpolations, the only known letter from the bishop of Smyrna was originally completely unrelated to the seven Ignatian letters. Since Polycarp died as martyr in the 150’s or 160’s, being 86 years old, the dating of his letter to the Christian community in Philippi remains open. Polycarp’s high esteem and therefore his relatively high age indicated by the request sent to him by the Philippians would seem to favor a relatively late dating, rather after 130 than before it.


The Epistle of Polycarp: Content and context

Polycarp had established his position as the bishop of Smyrna long before he wrote his letters to the Christian community in Philippi. The letter we have is related to a specific situation among the believers in Philippi. They had ”provoked” (προεπηλακίσασθε, the reading of the best manuscripts is correct; see Apparatus) Polycarp to write them ”on righteousness” (3.1). In spite of the peaceful tone of the letter, Polycarp does not just instruct and exhort the Philippians about the good Christian life. Behind the request he received, there is a particular case he has to address. Polycarp refers to a certain Valens who was chosen as presbyter but had misused his position (11.1-2, 4). Without giving any specifics, he indicates that the sin of Valens was avarice (4.1; cf. also 2.2; 5.2; 6.1; 11.1-2).

Some scholars find it even likely that Valens was the bishop of the community, which would have made his case especially serious. However, the Philippians most likely turned to the respected bishop of Smyrna because they did not have a bishop of their own to solve the case. The church of Philippi seems to have been too small and poor to have a bishop. They had elders, deacons and (the semi-office of) widows like the communities addressed in the Pastoral epistles and in the letters of Ignatius.

In order to help the Philippians to settle this case, Polycarp wants the Philippians to see the whole picture. He wants to show that the crisis caused by Valens is not just a question about one person who has sinned; it is about the whole community. And so Polycarp writes about righteous life in the community, starting with a reference to avarice (4.1) and then moving on to different groups in the community: wives (4.2), widows (4.3), deacons (5.2), youth and virgins (5.3), and presbyters (6.1). The critical treatment of those who deny the incarnation of Christ and other heresies in ch. 7 is unrelated to the specific case of Valens, but relevant to the unity of the community, as is Polycarp's appeal to steadfastness in faith and righteousness (ch. 8-10).

Only after all this Polycarp takes up the case of Valens (and his wife). He exhorts the Philippian believers (11.4) not to ”regard them as enemies, but call them back as frail and straying members” – and immediately takes up the point he has made in preceding discourse – ”so as to save your entire body. For when you do this, you build yourselves up.” He especially exhorts them to temperance. They must calm down and not let the sun go down on their anger (12.1; Eph. 4:26). 

The most striking feature of the long letter of Polycarp is its extensive use of Christian texts, which guarantee the truthfulness and authority of his teaching in a delicate situation. We can be sure that he knew and used Matthew and an extensive collection of Paul's letters (Rom., 1-2 Cor., Gal., Eph., Phil., 1-2 Tim., probably also 2 Thess. and perhaps Col.), as well as 1 Peter and 1 Clem., which both he often quotes. It is notable that Polycarp does not seem to know the Gospel of John, which he could have quoted to support his theology of incarnation. Yet he seems to have known 1 John (cf. 1 John 4:2-3 and Pol. Phil. 7.1). The evidence for his knowledge of Luke-Acts is ambiguous; it is possible that he has used Luke 6:20, 38 in 2.3 and quoted Acts 2:24 in 1.2. Polycarp very likely used some particular books of the Septuagint (Ps., Prov., Is., Jer., Tob.). Anyway, his knowledge of and commitment to the early Christian writings is impressive. When Polycarp praises the Philippians' knowledge of the scriptures and modestly states that ”to me, this has not been granted” (12.1), he wants to pay respect to the serious believers who are eagerly arguing for harsh treatment of Valens (see commentary). 

The theology of Polycarp is not so Pauline as his respect for the great apostle. His concept of righteousness, which lies at the heart of his letter (2.3; 3.1; 3.3; 4.1; 5.2; 8.1; 9.1; 9.2; cf. also a reference to ”commandments” in 2.2; 3.3; 4.1 and 5.1), is much closer to that of Matthew, emphasizing the works of righteousness. To be sure, at the beginning of his letter (1.3) he refers to one of the central ideas of Paul: ”For you know that you have been saved by grace – not of works but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” It is certain that Polycarp saw no contradiction between God's grace and the necessity of righteous life for salvation, which he emphasizes in the same context (2.2): "...the one who raised him from the dead will raise us as well, if we do his will, walking in his commandments."

For Polycarp, the real physical suffering and death of Christ on the cross is a central conviction (7.1), and so are his glorious resurrection, his cosmic rule and his coming as the judge of the living and the dead (2.1; cf. Phil. 2:5-11). As we can see, Polycarp's eschatology is sharply ethical (2.2). It is related to his teaching about righteousness, which is the central topic of the letter. In his disinterest in the imminent expectation of the coming of Christ (Naherwartung), Polycarp stands together with his contemporaries, the authors of Luke-Acts and the Pastoral epistles.

In the letter of Polycarp to the Christian community in Philippi, we see the beginnings of a theological fusion that has often been called Frühkatholizismus; maybe proto-orthodoxy could be a more suitable term.


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Matti Myllykoski
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